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Chicago Admissions Director Nails It

Rose Martinelli, head of admissions at the Chicago Booth Business School, just posted an insightful piece about the MBA admissions process on her blog. Admissions committee members are increasingly transparent about what they are looking for. No matter what school you are applying to: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, or any other, her words ring true:

In the midst of all the preparations to apply for business school – studying for the GMAT, researching schools, drafting essays (and trying to keep up with your regular life) — it’s very easy to forget about the importance of taking some time for reflection. Here’s an excerpt:

“There are many tools you can use to help facilitate your self assessment process, but one of the simplest is creating a timeline and inserting points of importance on that timeline (whether good or bad) that were critical to your development. Don’t limit your reflection to work and school alone, but expand it to your interests, passions and community. Once you have completed this, go back and reflect on each point – What did you learn? How have you changed? Etc. The goal is to gain an understanding of your history so that you can build upon it as you pursue the next phase in your life. This process should also help you come up with the “whys” behind your decision to go back to school and which degree may be right for you.”


The Rose Report

The Dreaded GMAT

I’m no fan of the Graduate Management Admission Test, the GMAT. It’s a tricky, exasperating standardized test that sorts MBA aspirants into two categories: Those that have to worry about their scores and those that don’t.

Critics proclaim that the test doesn’t measure success in business or business school and that the format (or content, or delivery, or something…) unfairly challenges certain groups of test takers. I won’t take the other side of that argument, because they may be right.

The Graduate Management Admissions Council, the power behind the GMAT, argues that the test is predictive and does give schools a uniform method for measuring applicants. They also may be right.

Whether admissions officers agree with the results or efficacy of the test, it is here to stay.*

You are the Customer
A number of very good test-prep companies offer materials, classes and/or one-on-one coaching. I strongly urge you to take advantage of their offerings, and I have great news for you: As the potential client, you are in the driver’s seat.

Kaplan, Manhattan GMAT, Princeton Review, Veritas, and the super-tutors at Inspirica are just some of your options. There are other specialized companies in different locales (India sports a slew of cool tutoring programs), and you can find freelance consultants in most major cities.

Because the test and its outcome (not to mention the financial and time commitment) are so important, you should put on your consumer hat and look for the best deal for you.

Finding the Right Trainer
A few days ago, I accompanied an aspiring MBA applicant to a free class given by one particular vendor. A few things struck me about my prospective learning experience. At first, I couldn’t understand the teacher because he talked too fast. But I figured I could get over that, and I eventually figured out how to follow his verbal pace. But the problem was that he was such a great test-taker—and so were all the other potential instructors—that I felt like my teacher was a different species than me.

Frankly, I am intimidated by people that test off the charts. I am never going to be like them. My brain works in a different way. What’s plain as day to them is not plain as day to me. They’ve never had the personal experience of looking at a problem and drawing a complete blank.**
I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that a teacher doesn’t have to score a perfect 800 to help a student get what they want. You may want the people who develop the tests to have gotten a perfect score; that’s great. But I don’t know if the person in front of me teaching my class, or tutoring me one-to-one needs to be such a genius.

I recommend attending a number of free seminars, and even if you are in a major city with lots of test schools, go online and see how a virtual course works. You are the consumer. You have a choice and not every teacher is the right fit for you. Remember, test companies are businesses competing with each other. It is their job to tell you why you should work with them. You are the client, and you have every right to find an instructor and a course structure that fits your style and your needs.

You have to find a teacher that speaks your language. Someone that knows what your goals are. The teacher I saw kept talking about scoring in the 99th percentile, or about 780. If that’s what sells prep courses, I can understand the emphasis on near-perfect scores. But you don’t need to get a 780. In fact, you may not need to break a 700.

Just Get it Over the Net
Schools publish average or median scores, but as anyone with a rudimentary understanding of statistics knows, those numbers don’t tell you the whole story. Look at the middle 80% of what students are getting. For example, the middle 80% at Chicago was 660-760 (ranked in the top 5) and the middle 80% at NYU Stern was also 660-760 (ranked top 10). The middle 80% at the University of Washington was 640-750 (ranked top 35). Get the picture?

You simply need to do well enough so the GMAT isn’t an issue. I like to think it’s like tennis: you need to get it over the net. You want a good, solid score. The goal, especially for those of us who aren’t great test-takers, is to figure how to make it so the whole process doesn’t intimidate you. You don’t need a scary-smart teacher. The test is intimidating enough as it is.

Like everything else with the MBA application, it’s better to start early so you are, as Milton Friedman would say, Free to Choose. Some classroom courses are given only every two months, so if you want to take the test before October, you may need to sign up for a course before it gets away from you. GOOD LUCK!

* Some schools now accept the GRE, or Graduate Record Exam, in lieu of the GMAT. In either case, students can benefit from prep courses and/or tutoring.
** I took the test awhile ago, and since graduating from Harvard Business School (got slightly below the median for my entering class), completely forgot everything I had to learn for the test. So it was as if I was starting afresh when I went to the prep class.

It’s All About Differentiation

Silicon Valley’s career guru, Patti Wilson has published her mid-year Careerzine. I’ve excerpted some of it below; it’s perhaps a bit on the “realistic” side, but has some good tips, such as to work on “career differentiation”. This is true in job hunting, applying to graduate school, and managing your current career if you are working for someone else or self employed.

Patti writes:
It is hard to know with certainty who to believe any more, but more importantly it is even more difficult to plan and prepare for contingencies and do adequate career management. My approach is to hope for the best but prepare for the absolute worse. Be ready to hang on as if you had to tough it out for 5+ years while you look for your dream job.

Silicon Valley vs. the US Economy

The difference between Silicon Valley and the rest of the US economy, aside from a state budget run amok, is that the tech bubble bursting and the massive blood-letting of companies and jobs between 2000-2003 seems to have mitigated the damage this time around. It simply is not as bad as other regions. Companies are hiring and laying off people. Green jobs are growing here as is bio-tech/bio-pharma. I have heard that the salaries of local MBA grads of our top schools are higher this year than last. On the other hand, people are more precarious than during the tech bust as there is less to nothing to fall back on. Many have seen their 401k plans lose 40% or more in value and the home equity was already used up in refinancing to get through the last crash.

What’s Next?

Now that’s the $64 question and if the dollar devalues, it will be the $100 question. Advice I have been giving my clients is to be prepared to last it out for however long it takes. With increasing fierce competition on a global scale, you must commit your resolve and effort to “career differentiation”. Yes, I know that’s a mouthful, but personal branding is so overworked. And do you really know how to brand yourself? Or what you would look like if you were?

Being able to answer to “what makes you different?” is really how you can articulate your unique value proposition to the world. And knowing what makes you different takes reflection, effort and the long view. You have to look forward down the road to see where you are headed because recognizing your distinct path in part makes you different.

The tools are there: social sites, blogs, video, podcasts, and wikis. To not understand them, and make the most of them is to your detriment as they give you the edge to show the world how, why and in what way you are different as visibly as possible. And that in itself can determine your success.

So, spruce up your Linkedin profile, get on Facebook, Twitter and then explore the more esoteric vertical social sites to find more ways to be connected and visible to everyone.

Career Security

Yes, career security does exist in these tough times. It is in the power of the collective and the collaborative. It stands to reason that if consultants are competing for every project then they are better off collaborating on all projects. If we are all striving to be different then helping everyone be their personal best will only help you stand out too. If you can take the long view and look down the road, you can change the future.

Start With Your Brain

Interested in business school? If so, now’s the time to start thinking about your application, even if you don’t want to apply until 2010. Sure, that’s a long way away, but sometimes really good ideas take a long time to hatch.

Please note—I wrote “thinking about your application.” I’m not one of those admissions consultants that say you have to be rigorous with your timeline: if it’s the third week in June then you must be half-way through the GMAT quant section. No, that’s not me.

What I do to suggest, though, is to start thinking about starting to think about business school. That’s not a typo. Start thinking about thinking.

By putting even a fragment of an idea into your head, you are inspiring your brain. And it’s your brain, that big mass of grey matter that nobody quite understands, that is going to get you into the school of your choice.

Indeed, it’s your brain, with a little push from that part of you that knows how to meet deadlines, that’s going to make your application stand out from a competitive pool.

I don’t want to scare anybody, but getting into business school is competitive. Kirsten Moss, Director of Admissions at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, told me that applications there have risen 50% over the last three years. “The bar is getting higher,” she said.

To put yourself firmly in the running, start thinking about what the admissions committees want to know about you. They want to know about your career history, your goals, your achievements, and your character. So why not give your brain a little exercise, and let it mull over what you think you might want to say?

Here’s what turning it over to the brain can do for you (Part 1):

1. You can ponder

You’ve heard that some people get their best ideas in the shower, or while running, or even by mediating. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that daydreaming is a great tool for creativity. Think of these next few months—or years—as one long meditation session. But make sure you feed your brain the problem, for example, “What do I want to say about my brilliant career?” before heading off to that monastery in Tibet.

2. You open yourself up to new ideas

Have you ever had someone talk about something, say Uganda for example, and suddenly it’s everywhere? For awhile, everyone I knew was talking about Uganda. My brain was now alerted to Uganda and it started giving me ideas: maybe I should travel there and take a trek in the mountains. Maybe I should work with my friend who is supporting a microfinance project in Kampala, or another who is has just started a non-profit there to help reunite war-torn families there. I don’t know, but my brain is processing Uganda in a different way than it did before because now it’s on my radar.

If you read through the school websites early, explore the curricula, and start talking to current MBA students, you give yourself the chance to bump into some new concepts while you are doing your research. The more time you allow yourself to open yourself up to new experiences, the more you will be able to differentiate yourself.

3. You can brainstorm

Throw ideas out there. Go crazy with thoughts like “I’m going to take Digital Anthropology at Sloan” or “I’m going to apply to INCAE in Costa Rica because that way I can study sustainability up close” or even “I’m going to meet my girlfriend’s brother’s uncle’s neighbor who just graduated from Columbia and is excited about working in Mongolia next year.” That way you might discover something about a course of action or about yourself that you hadn’t even thought about before.

That’s all for this installment. I’ll be writing a column after July 4 (US Independence Day) to pick up on this idea of starting early. As for me, I started planning three years before I actually applied to business school. But that, as they say, is another story.

Never Believe It Isn’t Possible

In the midst of today’s celebrity news, I found an unrelated article in the Wall Street Journal about the heroin trade, Afghanistan and the Taliban. Not an easy subject, I know.
The thing is, the article reviewed a book called “Seeds of Terror” by Gretchen Peters, whom I knew very well when we were both working is Asia. She has been on Newshour, been interviewed by John Stewart on the Daily Show, and briefed members of Congress and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The greatest thing about the book — well written, informative, and so typical of what 85 Broads is all about — is the dedication to her two “near-perfect daughters.”
To “Isabella and Sophia,” she writes. “Never believe it isn’t possible.”

Gretchen is one of those women that just plain followed her heart. We met in the Euromoney Magazine offices in Hong Kong. I asked her to intern for me on a project there, and we became fast friends. When she moved to Phnom Penh to work for, and ultimately edit, the Cambodia Daily newspaper, I took advantage and visited several times, bringing her Twizzlers and other junk food which you couldn’t get in Cambodia.

She later ended up as ABC TV’s bureau chief in Pakistan, and while there, started research on her book about the Taliban.

When I saw her on the Daily Show, I felt like cheering. She was the same Gretchen I knew from our days hanging out in the Foreign Correspondents Club. To think now that her knowledge may help guide US and worldwide foreign policy on the Taliban. Wow.

I recently followed my heart to start my business as an MBA admissions consultant. I did it because I want to help people be more like Gretchen. To be able to change the world in their own special way. To be honest, I didn’t see her and say, “There’s a woman who can become a foreign policy expert on Afghanistan and the Taliban.” I just thought that she was smart, interesting and had a great sense of humor. But I knew she had something… and boy, look at her now.

All because she believed it was possible.